Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 100

Walls come down. (software and hardware for the physically disabled) (column)
by Steven Anzovin

When Dustin Webb was six years old, he wrote a story about becoming an astronaut. "I want to be an astronaut for a job. I will go in a spaceship to space. When I grow up I will walk in space. I will be as fast as I want. Ernie [an imaginary pet monkey] will go with me. He will steer the spaceship. He will feed me and sleep with me. Teach Ernie to talk so I can be understood."

Dustin needed Ernie's help because Dustin has cerebral palsy--he can't walk, talk, or feed himself.

Today Dustin is ten years old and goes to school in a mainstream class in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Dustin's family has never gotten him a monkey, but they've found a better helper--a computer. His family began experimenting with an Apple when he was still a preschooler. Now he communicates with the aid of a Toshiba 1100 Plus laptop, an Artic Symphonix voice synthesizer, and Morse code translation software. Using three swiiches, one at each hand and one on his head, he can tap out Morse code fast enough to hold a conversation with a patient listener. Dustin is also expert at using a letter board to converse, but his real ambitions are learning to use a keyboard, getting a faster laptop with a hard disk and a better screen, and stepping up to a synthesizer with a more natural-sounding voice.

Kids are fascinated by Dustin's cool electric wheelchair and by his computer. Teachers and other adults are won over by his computer savvy. He has won several awards for writing. In fact, says his mother, Ann, Dustin's abilities are limited only by how well he can use his electronic tools.

Only a few computer companies develop products for the almost 38 million disabled people in the United States (see "Building Bridges" in the February 1990 issue of COMPUTE!). Adapted accss or augmentative communication are the aims of those who tailor computer systems to the needs of disabled people. IBM and Apple have ongoing adapted-access development projects. Apple, for example, provides a "sticky key" program in its Macintosh system software that allows multiple simultaneous keystrokes for one-finger typists.

But it's small companies that produce most of the real-world products. Joe Sullivan of Duxbury Systems in Littleton, Massachusetts (508-486-9766), is well known for well-crafted Braille translation software. Another small developer is MicroSystems Software of Framingham, Massachusetts (508-626-8511), which developed the Morse code translation software and some other programs that Dustin uses. Founded by Dick Gorgens, former head of Alloy Computer Products, MicroSystems focuses on networking utilities, developers' tools, and neural networks. But it also offers a line of PC-compatible software, called HandiWARE, that addresses the needs of people with different types of disabilities.

HandiKEY translates input from alternative devices--a mouse, joystick, sip-and-puff tube, headstick, foot swtich, or any external switch--into standard PC keyboard input. Scan and select a predefined or user-defined cell on the screen, and HandiKEY types of the word or text string that the cell represents. HandiCODE allows Morse code input from external devices and supports most of the standard speech synthesizers on the market with voice output. HandiCHAT works in a pop-up window and synthesizes voice directly from typed or alternative input.

HandiWORD is a statistically weighted predictive dictionary that works with other HandiWARE programs and most word processors. When you type a letter, HandiWORD guesses the word you want to type and lets you finish it with just a keystroke or two. As you use it, the program analyzes your word usage and makes progressively more accurate guesses. This significantly speeds typing for Morse, one-fingered, or headstick typists. MAGIC (MAGnificatioin In Color) interactively enlarges part or all of the screen for visually impaired users. The company also sells See-Beep, a utilityfor the hearing-impaired that flashes the screen when the computer beeps.

Most of these programs draw on techniques developed years or ven decades ago in university labs. Other companies have sold similar products, but their cost has been prohibitive to many potential users. The HandiWARE products are not only thoughtfully designed--easy to learn, easy to use, and well integrated with one another and with other popular applications--they are also inexpensive. Prices range from $20 for See-Beep to about $200 for HandiWORD.

A protable system for adapted access that includes a laptop computer, voice synthesizer, alternative input device, and complete suite of HandiWARE software not costs around $5,000 to $7,000. Prices continue to fall, but even at that cost, it's a negligible expense measured against the freedom that adapted access gives to people like Dustin Webb. With a computer, Dustin and thousands like him are no longer cut off from the world. Instead, they are able to unleash their imaginations upon it.